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Cumulative effects: oil, gas, and biodiversity.

Biological diversity has become one of the latest in a long series of environmental buzz-terms, and for good reason. Viewed broadly, biological diversity (biodiversity for short) refers to the variety of living organisms -- within and among species -- and ecosystems and their roles in sustaining the ecological processes on which all life depends. According to the Alberta government, biodiversity "affects the quality of life of all Canadians and human societies on a global basis." But the government has cautioned that the "importance" of biodiversity is "largely unappreciated and poorly understood." (Alberta Biodiversity Strategy at

This lack of appreciation is particularly acute with respect to the toll on biodiversity from the cumulative effect of thousands of human actions, many or most of which have individually minor impacts. The phrase -- death by a thousand cuts -- is a popular and fitting characterisation of the cumulative effects problem.

Notwithstanding this lack of appreciation, Canada has committed internationally to the "conservation of biological diversity" and the "sustainable use of its components" (Biodiversity Convention). Alberta and all other provinces and territories have made a similar commitment among themselves (Cdn Biodiversity Strategy, Alberta Environment has a key role in implementing this commitment, but the Province has also singled out the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board (EUB or Board), Alberta's chief regulator of provincial oil and gas development, as one of several other government entities that also play an "important role" in conserving biodiversity within the province (Ab Biod. Strategy, see note above).

There is a considerable need for the EUB to play this role, because one of the major threats to biodiversity in Alberta is from the cumulative effects, including habitat fragmentation and losses from the several thousand individual oil and gas wells the Board licences annually, and associated roads, pipelines, and other facilities for servicing these wells.

The cumulative habitat impacts from these conventional oil and gas activities, often taken together with forestry operations and other human activities, are particularly acute in Alberta's Eastern Slopes and boreal forest regions.

Within these areas, Woodland Caribou, already a threatened species in Alberta and long considered an indicator of overall boreal ecosystem health, are especially at risk from cumulative effects. There is also concern about the cumulative effects on grizzly--another ecosystem "indicator"--wolverines and lynx, among other species.

Because of the cumulative effects on Alberta's northern boreal forest from oil and gas development and logging operations, Alberta has recently been portrayed in the global media as the model for how not to manage that circumpolar ecosystem. (Fen Motaigne, "Boreal -- The Great Northern Forest" National Geographic Magazine, June 2002).

Although these cumulative effects would justify the EUB's playing an important role in protecting biodiversity, to date the Board has hardly stepped into the cumulative effects arena. For the most part, the Board still reviews individual conventional oil and gas projects on the basis of their individual effects without regard to their cumulative effects. In some regions, particularly the southern East Slopes, the Board has actually required project proponents to provide cumulative effects assessments. But the Board has not imposed this requirement consistently and vigorously. And even when the Board acknowledges a cumulative effects problem in an area for a proposed project, the Board typically licences the project on the ground that its individual impacts are so low that it will make only a relatively minor contribution to the cumulative effects problem. This approach promotes the death by a thousand cuts syndrome and hinders any meaningful effort to account for and properly manage the cumulative effects of all activities, many of which are individually minor.

To use another analogy, the EUB'S approach is like developing a fitness program for a chain smoker that allows continued smoking, on the ground that the incremental adverse effect of each successive cigarette is negligible.

While not fully coming to grips with the adverse cumulative impacts from individual conventional oil and gas wells and related facilities, the Board has insisted on viewing the social benefits of those individual projects in terms of their "aggregate public economic benefits ... at the provincial level" (Shell Ferrier Decision 2001-9). In other words, the Board weighs an individual well's positive and negative effects by viewing the former from the cumulative standpoint of province-wide oil and gas production, but the latter (at least, with respect to habitat effects) on an individual basis. This approach is inherently illogical, putting aside its inadequacy in fulfilling the province's commitment to conserve biodiversity.

To be sure, the Board has not completely ignored the adverse cumulative habitat effects of conventional oil and gas activities. The Board and other regulators have focused considerable attention on reducing the footprints of each of the myriad new developments allowed for particular regions. However, these regulators must also address the cumulative effect of all the footprints that have been allowed. The EUB and other regulators must also consider whether it is necessary to impose region-wide limits on those developments in order to avoid exceeding thresholds for unacceptable cumulative effects.

Once again by analogy, a family can't solve its increasing debt simply by committing to cut its individual grocery bills by 20%, without regard to how the total cost of those reduced bills, together with all other necessary and discretionary expenditures, compares with the family's total income for the relevant period.

Why has the Board not engaged in a proper environmental accounting when that exercise seems so necessary for the Board to fulfill its important role in conserving biodiversity?

One possible answer is that our modern era of consumerism and instant gratification dulls society's appreciation and sense of responsibility for the adverse cumulative effects of our individual actions. In contrast, the macro -- i.e. cumulative -- economic benefit of consumerism is frequently touted by the commercial and public sectors.

Another answer is that, from a more practical standpoint, it is scientifically difficult to assess the magnitude and nature of cumulative effects, and to determine the maximum amount of those effects that can occur without seriously threatening biodiversity. But these serious technical challenges must be kept in perspective: governments make critical policy decisions all the time based on rough technical knowledge. And while the science of cumulative effects may have considerable margins for error, it is certain that any attempt to assess environmental impacts will be erroneous without any accounting for cumulative effects. From these standpoints, scientific hurdles should not prevent the EUB and other regulators from playing their important roles of managing cumulative effects to conserve biodiversity.

Still another likely reason for the Board's intransigence is that managing cumulative effects is potentially even more difficult than assessing them. Management requires a coordinated or integrated effort by various regulators and land managers to control the impacts of the myriad human activities within a region. Alberta's legislation impedes this integrated effort, by compartmentalising regulatory functions among different agencies rather than encouraging an integrated, holistic ecosystem focus. The EUB's legislatively-mandated focus on energy and utilities developments is a classic example of this compartmentalisation.

This legislative shortcoming is not fatal, however, because present legislation likely gives the Board and other provincial regulators ample discretion to jointly develop cumulative effects management programs that apply to all industrial sectors and other human users of public resources. The EUB'S own umbrella legislation, the Energy Resources Conservation Act, gives the Board ample authority, if not an implied duty, to consider cumulative effects in deciding whether the "public interest" warrants licensing energy resource projects. Besides its project-by-project licencing authority, the Board has broad powers to conduct public hearings -- known as "inquiries" -- into matters that relate to its licencing function.

Using the overall provincial legislative framework, at least at the outset, the provincial government has committed to develop regional land use plans that will purport to tackle the cumulative effects problem. Toward that end, the Province touts two ongoing projects--one for the Athabasca oilsands and another for the northern portion of the Eastern Slopes--as the forerunners of this planning effort. While significant as recognitions of the cumulative effects problem, those projects share the same flaw: they seem far from recognizing the need for, and then adopting, limits on regional development to provide sufficient natural habitat, including core protected areas, to conserve biodiversity in those regions. Other, more recent, planning projects--in the southern Rockies and southern prairie regions--could well have the same shortcoming.

The EUB has been a participant in the Eastern Slopes and Athabasca oilsands planning efforts, but it could and should wield more leverage to ensure that plans for all regions are developed and that all such plans include appropriate limits to avoid exceeding thresholds for unacceptable cumulative effects.

How can the Board have that influence? At the very least, the Board should adopt a consistent approach toward weighing projects' cumulative costs and benefits in deciding whether to licence individual projects. The Board should also routinely consider whether regional cumulative effects thresholds exist and, if so, whether they are being approached or have been exceeded. The Board could consider these issues in a regional inquiry or, if necessary, by conducting licencing hearings on a region-by-region basis.

The Board should also consider imposing phased or complete moratoria on new oil and gas developments in those regions of concern, pending the Province's development of regional plans that set limits on unacceptable cumulative effects. This kind of remedy is nothing new. The Board has long been willing to halt drilling of one kind of hydrocarbon when necessary to conserve future production of another hydrocarbon in the same area. This non-renewable resource conservation tool provides a solid precedent for considering moratoria, when needed, to conserve renewable resources, like biodiversity.

A moratorium on oil and gas development in a region might be unfair to the energy industry and ineffective, if local or provincial land managers allow many other surface activities to occur in the same region. However, given the economic importance of oil and gas development, a regional oil and gas moratorium would likely spur the development of regional plans that tackle the cumulative effects of all human activities.

The Board could also encourage an agreement among regulators of all surface users to impose appropriate moratoria pending the Province's development of a regional plan that addresses cumulative effects.

Roughly ten years ago, another provincial tribunal, the Natural Resources Conservation Board, conditioned its approval of a ski resort complex in the Westcastle River valley, on the Province's creation of a regional conservation area for the broader Castle Crown region. Although this condition was never fulfilled, this NRCB's decision may serve as a useful model for EUB efforts, in the conventional well licencing context, to preserve regional environmental values.

In sum, the EUB cannot conserve Alberta's biodiversity single-handedly. But the Board can play its important role in conserving biodiversity by taking greater responsibility, and being more of a catalyst, for managing the cumulative toll on biodiversity from the thousands of conventional oil and gas activities that it licences each year.
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Author:Wenig, Michael M.
Date:Oct 1, 2002
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